Sticks and Stones Do Hurt…and So Can Words

Feeling insulted and damaged. Never measuring up. Walking on eggshells. These are just a few of many indicators of an emotionally abusive relationship. Emotional abuse is the consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviors that wear down a person’s self-esteem and undermine their mental health. I want to help you recognize this often seemingly invisible, yet very real type of abuse.

The definition of abuse is regularly or repeatedly treating a person with cruelty or violence. In discussing abuse, physical abuse (like shoving, cornering, breaking and throwing things) is likely the first thing that comes to mind. Emotional abuse is often devoid of physical violence; it is speech and/or behavior that’s controlling, punishing, or manipulative. This can include withholding love, communication, support, or money as indirect methods of exerting control and maintaining power. Emotional abuse might also look like someone controlling where you go, to whom you talk, or what you think. Spying, stalking, and invading your personal space or belongings is also abusive because it disregards personal boundaries.

You may be experiencing emotional abuse if someone wants to know what you are doing all the time or requires you to be in constant contact; demands passwords to your phone, email, and social media (digital abuse); acts jealous; frequently accuses you of cheating; prevents or discourages you from seeing friends or family; tries to stop you from going to work or school; gets angry in a way that frightens you; controls your finances or how you spend your money; stops you from seeing a doctor; humiliates you in front of others; calls you insulting names; threatens to hurt you, people or pets you care about; threatens to call the authorities to report you for wrongdoing; threatens to harm himself or herself when upset with you; says things like, “If I can’t have you, then no one can”; decides things for you that you should decide (like what to wear or eat); etc.

The most common form of emotional abuse is verbal, though it often goes unrecognized because it can be subtle. A client recently told me that she remembered a session from years ago when I stopped her now ex-husband from telling her to shut-up as she tried to speak. She did not even hear him say that, but she remembered feeling her body tense up. Research has shown that there is so much more to verbal abuse than people realize; in fact, some people are verbally abused on a regular basis without even recognizing it! Some forms of emotional/verbal use will undermine your self-esteem or make you feel inadequate as a way to establish hierarchy. 

Emotional and verbal abuse may be manifested outright or more insidiously in any of the following manners:

  • Using threats
  • Judging
  • Yelling
  • Patronizing
  • Criticizing
  • Lying
  • Blaming
  • Publicly embarrassing you
  • Ordering
  • Raging (showing violent, uncontrollable anger)
  • Belittling your accomplishments
  • Insulting your appearance
  • Digital spying
  • Tracking your whereabouts
  • Lecturing
  • Denying something you know is true (gaslighting)
  • Trivializing
  • Demanding respect (but not giving it)
  • Keeping you from socializing (isolating you)
  • Interrupting
  • Treating you like a child
  • Name-calling, even using derogatory pet- or nicknames
  • Disguising something hurtful or controlling by saying it in a loving, quiet voice, indirectly, or even concealed as a joke

Whether disguised as play or jokes, sarcasm or teasing that is hurtful is emotional and verbal abuse. There are innumerable signs of emotional abuse–unique to each couple and individual. If you fear you may be being emotionally or verbally abused, please seek help today. 

An emotionally abusive relationship can change you forever. You may feel powerless, controlled, worthless; you may question your memory, live in fear, change how you act to avoid upsetting your partner. Staying in an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship can have long-lasting effects on your physical and mental health, including leading to chronic pain, depression, or anxiety. This is no way to live. Help is available and you DESERVE it. If you suspect your partner, family member or friend may be emotionally abusing you, contact a counselor, an advocate or a pastor for assistance. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or visit their website (thehotline.org) and chat online with someone right away. I will be posting a follow-up blog discussing what to do if you are in an emotionally abusive relationships in the future. Please, do not suffer through emotional abuse. You and your happiness matter. My door is wide open; allow me to help you! Contact me today!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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